Action Figures - Issue One: Secret Origins (4 page)

“What, not even a thank-you for the assist?”


Assist
? How is nearly getting killed an assist?”

“We delayed him until you showed up,” Matt says. That’s one way to look at it.

“Get out. Take your girlfriend Lite-Brite and go.”

Girlfriend?
Lite-Brite?
“Come on, let’s go. It was nice to meet you,” I say, but I don’t mean it, not after that Lite-Brite crack I don’t. I admit, I’m disillusioned. I didn’t expect one of the country’s premiere superheroes to be such a—

“Tool,” Matt mutters, finishing my thought. The bitterness is so thick I can taste it.

Matt and I duck down an alley so we can (I feel silly saying this) change back into our civilian identities. Not that there’s much to change back from. Motocross gear and glowing are not what any self-respecting super-hero would call a costume.

Not that we’re super-heroes, certainly not after that debacle. And the award for Lamest Debut by a Super-Hero goes to (envelope please) Carrie Hauser, for
Barely Managing to Avoid Getting Killed by a Robot Only to be Saved by a Real Super-Hero
. Thank you. Thank you. But really, it’s an honor to just be nominated.

“Is Concorde always so pleasant and charming?” I ask.

“You think he’d welcome the help,” Matt says.
“You’d think he’d want to mentor the next generation of super-heroes.”

I’m sensing a sore subject. “I’m hungry,” I say. It’s a clumsy diversion, but it works.

“Yeah, me too.”

The Carnivore’s Cave is on the far end of Main Street, well away from the quote-unquote action. It’s made to look like one of those cool old roadside diners made from a converted train car, but it’s shiny and clean and doesn’t give off a greasy spoon vibe. A sign on the front door reads, “Vegans Will Be Disappointed.”

Matt’s friends occupy a corner booth. They’re the same kids I saw in the cafeteria.

“Dude,” says the boy, tapping his wrist, the universal sign for
you’re late
.

Matt’s explanation is, simply, “Robot.”

“Another one? Man, how come you get all the fun?”

“Not so much this time. So. Introductions.”

The boy is Stuart. He looks like a roadie for Metallica and is built like he could lift the whole band, stage included, by himself. I’ve never met anyone so ripped. He says hi and inhales a third of a cheeseburger in one bite. Matt tells me Stuart is super-strong and invulnerable, and to prove it Matt stabs the back of Stuart’s hand with a fork. Hard. There’s no wound, not so much as a red mark. Stuart looks at Matt and says, “Dude. Come on.”

Sara is wearing a hoodie at least one size too big for her, and she’s trying very hard to disappear into it. She’s pale and has dark circles under her eyes that sug
gest she hasn’t slept since, like, last year. Her black hair is pulled back into a ponytail, a sad effort to control the worst bad hair day in the history of mankind. If I didn’t know better I’d swear she had an electric current running through her. Sara is a Class Three psionic, which, Matt says, means she is an empath, (she can sense and broadcast emotions), a telepath (she can read minds), and a telekinetic (she can move things by thinking about it). I think I detect a distinct note of pride in his voice, and I agree, it sounds impressive, but Sara, she couldn’t care less.

The girl at the end is Missy. She smiles brightly and waves at me. She’s petite, has huge green eyes, and is wearing a headband sporting a pair of black cat ears. She’s a living anime character. She’s adorable. Hallmark stores could sell porcelain figurines of this girl and old ladies would scoop them up by the armload. According to Matt she’s not super-strong but she’s stronger than she looks, not super-fast but fast, and extremely agile.

“Matt said you can fly,” Missy says. “That must be so cool but I think it’d be kind of scary too being way up in the sky and thinking oh God what if I fall but I guess that’s what would make it really exciting too like being on a roller coaster except not because there’s...you know...no roller coaster. Because you’re in the air.”

She got that out in one breath. That should qualify as a super-power. “That about nails it,” I say.

“What’s your origin?” Stuart asks through a full mouth.

“My
origin
? You mean, how did I get my powers?”

“Yeah. Regale us. We need
someone
in this group with a cool origin story,” he says, eyeballing Matt.

“Still better than yours,” Matt says. Stuart, Sara, Missy, their powers are all the result of genetic mutation, he explains, meaning they were born with their abilities. Mighty Wikipedia says mutation-based abilities usually don’t manifest right away and tend to develop with age, so whatever heat these guys are packing now is going to get stronger as they get older.

“I make up for a lame origin with my natural pure awesomeness,” Stuart says. The last of his burger vanishes down his gullet and he waves a waitress over to order another (his fourth, I learn. Where does he put it all?).

I order some fries to snack on and sit down to tell my story. I’ve never shared this story with anyone, and I know I just met these people, but they’re like me in a way so few people are. I have a good feeling about them.

Or maybe I’m just desperate to not feel so alone.

I miss my old friends. The good ones, I mean.

“It was a few months ago,” I begin.

FIVE

It was a few months ago when everything changed, and I do mean everything.

It was a Thursday. Weird detail to remember so vividly, but there you are. The entire day was so absurdly normal: woke up, prepped and primped, ignored my way through school, made plans with my friends for summer break, came home, and found Mom and Dad sitting in the living room when they should have been at work. Dad was on one end of the couch. Mom was in the easy chair, as far away as she could be from Dad and still be in the same room. It looked like they were miles apart. I remember thinking that right before they stood up and announced they had something very important to tell me.

The second Mom said the word
divorce
I went catatonic. Sounds melodramatic, I know, but I honestly think that’s what happened. I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t think, I might have stopped breathing, and Mom and Dad sounded like the unseen teachers in an old Charlie Brown cartoon, nothing but
whah whah whah whah
. Nonsense noises.

To this day I couldn’t tell you what finally
snapped me out of my stupor, but the next thing I knew I was crying and screaming at them and fury and hatred was pouring out of me like acid and I couldn’t stand to be in that house anymore, I couldn’t stand to look at them, either of them, and I ran.

There’s a huge nature reserve several miles from my house, and that was where I stopped because I couldn’t run anymore. I was lightheaded from running and crying at the same time and I felt like I might throw up, and whether that was due to my little marathon or because my entire life had just come crashing down around me is anyone’s guess.

I don’t know why I went there. And I don’t know why I entered the woods, but I felt the need to get as far away from my parents as possible. Maybe I was hoping to get so lost I’d have a perfect excuse to curl up and die.

I walked.

It started to get dark. The sun was going down. I’d been wandering around for hours. I’d seen a couple of joggers, a man walking his dog, but it was lonely out there. Empty. Like I felt.

And then the worst day of my life butted heads with the weirdest day of my life.

For a moment the woods went silent. Birds stopped singing. The breeze died and every swaying branch and rustling leaf stilled. The silence filled with a distant whistling noise that became a deafening whine. The noise, it seemed to come from everywhere but for some reason I looked up. I could only look for a second because it was so bright, brighter than the sun, but in that second I swore I saw a solid shape in the middle of the light.

There was a strange
whoomp
noise and a force threw me back, knocking the wind out of me. I was blind and panting and panicking because I didn’t know what was going on. In time everything normalized and I saw a thick cloud of dust swirling amidst some trees several yards off the path, so I did what any teenage girl with half a brain would do in such circumstances: I went to investigate.

A few of the trees were leaning dangerously, but unlike the trees after a good storm they’d all splayed out away from each other, and the ground in the middle had sunk. It was a crater, and in the center of the depression was—

It wasn’t a man. It was shaped like a man, but vaguely. There were two legs, two arms, a head, but everything was stretched out, like a funhouse mirror version of a basketball player. It was hard to tell with him (it?) lying on the ground, but I guessed he was twice my height. He was dressed in a yellow and white bodysuit that for some reason I thought was a uniform. His eyes took up most of his head, like a fly’s eyes, except his were black and shiny, like a pair of oversized eight balls. He had no nose or ears and a funny little inverted V for a mouth.

Of course, it was an assumption on my part that those were his eyes and mouth, because I was convinced that the thing at my feet was an alien—an honest-to-God alien from another planet.

Holy crap.

He even had green skin.

Holy crap.

“Are you all right?” I whispered. It was the most volume I could muster between my recent crying spree
and my state of shock, but I doubted it could understand me anyway. I mean, you know: alien. I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be like TV where aliens all spoke flawless English.

That theory was confirmed when he made a dolphin noise at me, a series of squeals and clicks and whistles. I couldn’t tell what he was saying but I knew he was hurt, maybe dying, but I didn’t know what to do. I thought about calling 911 but what good would that have done? Unless I got Dr. Bones McCoy or someone like that. For all I knew, he would have been taken away to Area 51 to be dissected.

While I was waffling he reached for me with his trembling three-fingered hands. He wasn’t asking for help; he didn’t want to die alone.

I took his hands. They were warm.

No, not warm. They were hot. They were glowing. They were burning. I screamed and tried to let go but I couldn’t, he was holding on to me, his fingers had a death-grip on me, he wouldn’t let go and IT HURT SO MUCH—

Everything went black.

When I opened my eyes the world was still black. It took me a minute to realize it was nighttime.

What happened?

I remembered.

The alien was lying next to me. He was so still. He was cold to the touch, and I thought he’d shrunk. He looked, I don’t know, like he was drying out.

My hands hurt.

What did he do to me?

***

“What did he do to you?” Sara asks, wide-eyed. They’re all gawking at me in amazement.

“I don’t know for sure, but I think he put something in my hands.” I show them my palms, which are smooth—and by that I don’t mean normal smooth, I mean the lines that once crossed my palms have been erased. All that’s left of the heart and life lines (Wikipedia again, I found a chart) are the ends at the outer edge of my palm, and my head line is gone entirely, replaced by this perfect circle of flawless skin. There’s a round lump there, just under the surface.

“That’s wiiiiiiild,” Matt says, poking at my right hand. “Alien implants?”

“Maybe?” I say. “I don’t know.”

“Carrie wins,” Stuart declares. “Best. Origin. Ever.”

“I don’t know about
ever
.”

“Best origin ever at this table.”

“Yeah, I can’t beat that,” Matt says, but he’s not resentful. “Unless I find out my gloves came from aliens, then I’m challenging you for the title.”

“Just remember to have a training montage before the rematch,” Stuart says. “Very important.”

“Good call.”

“Wish I could do my math class as a montage,” Sara grunts.

“I know, right?” Missy says. “I barely made it through algebra one last year and I know I’m already sucking at algebra two and I swear it’s just the same class and it’s all the same problems but they’re all harder and I feel like a dummy.”

“Don’t sweat it, Muppet, we’ll figure it out,” Stuart says, and Missy smiles but she’s not convinced. I
feel your pain, girl.

“Ooh. Yeah, Carrie,” Matt says, remembering something, “we usually get together after dinner every night to help each other fight with our homework. We’re at Sara’s place tonight. What, seven?” Sara nods. “There you go.”

Just like that, I’m part of the group.

I should be grateful to have friends again, but instead I’m hit with a deeply unpleasant sense of déjà vu. This is almost exactly how it started with the pretty girls in middle school: unquestioning and unconditional acceptance by a group of total strangers. You’d think I’d learn from bitter experience.

No. Stop it. You’re working yourself up for no reason. This is totally different.

Right?

Meanwhile...

A flatbed truck backs up to the warehouse bay, delivering the crippled tankbot home to Roger Manfred, director of Advanced Robotic Concepts’ A.I. department, and Ashe Semler, ARC’s chief operations officer. Neither are terribly happy with this latest development, less so that Concorde is reading them the riot act over it—and worse yet, they have no justification to tell him to shove off. Nothing is worse than a jerk when he’s actually right.

“I told you the last time I’d come down hard on ARC if it happened again,” Concorde says.

“And we told you we were working on the problem,” Semler says.

“Not fast enough, especially not for all the people in town who have to buy new cars because this
piece of junk turned Main Street into a demolition derby.”

“It wasn’t a piece of junk until you wrecked it,” Manfred says. “That ‘bot has our most cutting-edge onboard artificial intelligence system in it. Do you know how much that cost us to develop?”

“Less than the settlements for all the lawsuits people are going to file against the company, I’ll bet,” Concorde says. “And if your idea of cutting-edge A.I. is a robot that can decide on its own to bust out of your facility and run amok—”

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